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Barbie’s surprising connection with World War II

Barbie, the international icon, was born in 1959. But before her birth, there was a strong WWII connection.
Joel Searls Avatar
barbie in front of a WWII plane

Barbie is a world-famous, Mattel-brand fashion doll that has been on store shelves for decades. It began as the brainchild of Ruth Handler and was officially introduced on March 9, 1959. It has since become a multimedia franchise, which includes the blockbuster Barbie film of 2023, which grossed over $1.4B at the box office. The doll has had a strong impact on culture and society at large, which includes influencing female independence and living an upscale existence with cars, clothes and properties to boot.

Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling on set filming Barbie. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

Ruth Handler, her husband Elliot and Matt Matson founded Mattel Creations in Los Angeles in 1945. Their initial products to sell were picture frames and dollhouses made from scrap picture frames. Matson sold his stake in the company early on due to poor health. Ruth and Elliot pressed forward with Mattel in the 50s and 60s. Their initial ads on TV were during another key franchise of the 20th century, Disney, with Mattel as the first sponsor of the Mickey Mouse Club. Interestingly enough, Ryan Gosling, one of the stars in the Barbie film, got his start on the Mickey Mouse Club in the 1990s. Mattel was listed on the NYSE in 1960.

Ruth and Elliot Handler with Barbie in the center. Photo courtesy of telegraph.co.

Before the start of Mattel, Elliot Handler served in the US Army during World War II. He left the service as a private and changed the face of the world and for children. He brought veteran know-how to the fledgling company and a direct connection to the Greatest Generation that served in World War II. The idea for Barbie was developed as Ruth viewed her daughter playing with paper dolls and how she cast the dolls as adults. She pitched the idea to her husband and Mattel’s board of directors, who were surprisingly less than enthusiastic. On a trip to Europe, Ruth bought a few Bild Lilli dolls in West Germany and brought them back to help model her doll. She worked with Jack Ryan, an inventor-designer, who also helped design missiles for the military, to design the doll and Ryan eventually came to work at Mattel. Barbie premiered at the American International Toy Fair in NYC on March 9, 1959.

The first Barbie doll. Photo courtesy wikipedia.org.

Barbie was a hit and sold 350,000 units in the first year. Sales continued to climb upward and the doll expanded with new accessories and playsets. The first African-American Barbie doll, Christie, debuted in 1968 and the first Hispanic dolls debuted in 1980. The Handlers had done well and by the mid-70s faced some challenges that led to their dismissal from the company they had worked so hard to build. Barbie has continued to become a significant cultural icon, including being painted by Andy Warhol, turned into a multimedia sensation with video games, TV films on Netflix and computer-animated films. The doll’s legacy includes being a role model with a special collection that includes dolls of Ava Duvernay, Amelia Earheart, Nicole Adams, Patti Jenkins, Misty Copeland and many more. The doll is highly collectible, with over 100,000 collectors worldwide. Ruth’s legacy of innovation, overcoming the odds and building a doll that children want continues to live on and will likely do so for decades to come.